Clarity and Truth – a new Berzelius exhibition has opened at KI

A new exhibition showcasing the life and work of the great Swedish scientist Jacob Berzelius (1779-1848) was inaugurated at Karolinska Institutet in December 2023. This exhibition will remain open throughout the entirety of 2024 and may possibly continue into the following year. The previous Berzelius exhibition at Observatoriet in Stockholm was closed down in 2011.

Photo: portrait

Berzelius was the most prominent among the founding fathers (yes, they were all men!) of Karolinska Institutet in 1810. He also deeply influenced the scientific approach and the teaching methods for physicians, making the young institution far ahead of its time with a modern approach to experiments, observations, and the dynamics of living systems. He held professorships in medicine, pharmacology, and physiology at KI. Furthermore, he was widely regarded as the greatest chemist worldwide during his time, ushering in the era of modern chemistry.

Jacob Berzelius' life and achievements are now showcased in eleven displays featuring just over 200 carefully selected Berzeliana objects out of approximately 3000 stored at the Royal Academy of Sciences.

The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Royal Academy of Sciences, the Berzelius Society, and Karolinska Institutet, led by its Advisory Board for Culture (Kulturrådet).

 

Guided tours to visit the exhibition

The exhibition is situated in the new Karolinska building, Biomedicum, which serves as the hub for all basic biomedical research at the Institute. With approximately 1,000 researchers and staff now working in the building, the exhibition is located amidst the bustling activity of current research.

Spanning seven floors, the exhibition offers an introduction to Jacob Berzelius on the entrance floor. On the remaining six floors, objects illustrate various themes, including Berzelius as a person, his significant discoveries, his efforts to organize chemistry, the formulation of physiological principles, his role as an educator, and his specific contributions to the founding of KI.

One challenge with the exhibition is that not all parts are easily accessible to the public. While the entrance level, featuring two showcases and a movie introduction, is open to everyone, the remainder is enclosed within a protective shell cover.

Starting March 2024, KI will offer free guided one-hour tours for groups of up to 15 people, providing an opportunity for visitors to experience the exhibition firsthand.

 

Register for participation below:

The meeting point is the reception at the main entrance to Biomedicum, Solna väg 9

Wednesday March 6th   15-16 

Thursday March 14th     12-13

Thursday April 4th          16-17 

Monday  April 22nd     13-14 (guide Jan Trofast)

 Monday April 22nd     16-17 (guide Jan Trofast)

 

Open lecture about Jacob Berzelius by Jan Trofast Monday April 22nd at 14.30

Read more about this lecture and registration

 

Literature about Jacob Berzelius

Jacob Berzelius – The Discovery of Cerium, Selenium, Silicon, Zirconium and Thorium. Lund (2016), 131 pages.

Jacob Berzelius och Östergötland – Brevväxlingen mellan Jacob Berzelius och ”Syster Greta”, Lund (2021), 446 sidor, 75 bilder. 

Jacob Berzelius Vänskap och vetenskap Jan Trofast. Lund 2023

These books can be purchased from Hagströmer Library at Karolinska Institutet (Haga Tingshus), 210 kr or in connection with the exhibition.  Pay by Swish (070 306 38 41) and order from ingemar.ernberg@ki.se

 

Inauguration speach at the launch of the Berzelius exhibition 18th December 2023 by Sten Linnarsson

"We have worked in this beautiful building five years now. It’s full of life, full of science, full of productive chance encounters. 

But I remember my old office in the Retzius lab, with french balcony windows that I could open in summer to feel the breeze on my face. I could hear the birds chirping in the birch tree outside, and sometimes Lennart Nilsson would be on his hands and knees on the lawn outside using some new optical contraption to photograph the bumblebees. 

It’s just nostalgia of course. Our memories are often deceptive. The curtains in my old office were so ugly I stuffed them into the electrical utility closet. The walls were incredibly ugly too, but I couldn’t stuff them away. 

I think anyone who steps into Biomedicum is struck by the care and thoughtfulness that has gone into the architecture. The building clearly works, where so many others do not. 

Part of it is down to physical organization. The atrium and the cafeteria downstairs. The single point of entry. The slits. The open door policy. 

But also the interior design. Clearly someone with good taste has selected the materials and the colors. The wood, the textiles, the leather. The beautiful muted shades of brown, green and violet. 

Why are the colors and the materials so important? As scientists, we tend to focus on the rational. The well crafted argument, the precise measurement, the exact figure. But we are also artisans engaged in a craft, using and transferring tacit knowledge. We use our hands a lot. We work in small teams, humans interacting closely, intensely with each other. Our teams are diverse, mixing ages, genders, nationalities and social backgrounds. As a consequence, even though we tend not to talk about it much, science is profoundly emotional.  It’s hard emotional work — adapting, competing, collaborating, figuring each other out. I think that’s why the beauty of the physical environment is so important to us, wheather we realize that or not. 

One way to structure and navigate complex human relationships is through collective memory. Shared memories can support shared values. But memories — especially collective ones — are fragile constructions that require nurturing and support. Losing your memory — especially collective ones — can be devastating. 

In his book One hundred years of solitude, Gabriel Garçia Marques tells of the orphan Rebecca who brings to the sleepy village of Macondo a plague of insomnia. But ”No one was alarmed at first. On the contrary, they were happy at not sleeping because there was so much to do in Macondo in those days that there was barely enough time.”

But soon, the insomnia leads to amnesia. Villagers first lose memory of their childhoods. It gets worse and eventually they begin to forget the names of everyday objects. To remember, they start to place written labels on everything: ”table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan”. Thus, writes Marques, ”they went on living in a reality that was slipping away, momentarily captured by words, but which would escape irremediably when they forgot the values of the written letters”. 

So the dangers of amnesia are obvious. But memories can also overwhelm. Jorge Luis Borges once told the story of Ireneo Funes[1], who fell off a horse and hit his head badly. Upon recovery, Funes found that he would now remember everything: the shape of the clouds at every moment, and the configuration of every leaf on every tree he had ever seen. It was a curse of course. Funes was incapable of making any generalizations. A dog in the morning was for him utterly distinct from the same dog seen in the afternoon. 

But I’m rambling. I found a few reports[2] in the scientific literature of actual people diagnosed with hyperthymesia: the inability to forget. Most of those reports are sketchy. There are many more of course, reporting the inability to remember. 

Even worse, in my opinion, is willful amnesia, the active lack of curiosity about our past. It is a trait that has been unfortunately all too common at this institute. We have an entire museum of Swedish medical history stuck in a storage facility. An entire museum! Our library of old books, Hagströmerbiblioteket, is beautiful but hard to reach and open only occasionally. 

Consistently, another striking design feature of this building, was the complete absence of any memories. You step inside and you might as well think Karolinska was founded five years ago. Today that changes. I hope today can be the start of a new era, where Karolinska Institutet can come to terms with and celebrate all of its memories, as inspiration for the public and the next generations of scientists. I hope one day all our historical artefacts, memories of two hundred years of Swedish medical science, can be on display to excite and provoke and educate the public. Until then, I am so very pleased to welcome you to the first permanent historical exhibit at Karolinska Intitutet, Clarity and Truth, the life of Jacob Berzelius. "


 

[1] Funes, the memorious, 1944. “Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day.”

[2] E.g. Jill Price: "Starting on February 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday."

Launch of the Exhibition December 2023

John Sennett
04-04-2024